The Terrors of Texas

bikers

 

I’ve never lived in Texas but from what I’ve read and heard, it’s a weird place. Where else in the civilized world, in the year 2015, would there be a bloody shootout between rival biker gangs? In broad daylight? Right out in the open for all the world to witness?

I used to visit Houston when I worked for a company that was headquartered there, but my experience of the local culture was limited to an occasional attempt to learn the two-step. I was shut up in an air-conditioned office building with fluorescent lighting most of the time, tapping away at my keyboard or enduring endless corporate meetings.

I imagine that a big state like Texas has many different faces. But the one projected by the media is certainly bizarre. So bizarre that when I was offered a chance to work at a newspaper in Beaumont I recoiled in horror.

The incidents are too numerous to recount. From those rednecks dragging a poor black man to his death behind a pickup truck to that nightmare involving the Branch Davidian Christian sect, Texas has produced some of the most chilling news stories I’ve ever read.

It seems to me that Texas is not just a state but also a state of mind. Texans project an aura of in-your-face outrageousness, a willingness to embrace the unacceptable, to defy conventional behavior, to think the unthinkable and do the unacceptable.

It’s an intoxicating aura that has made the Wild West a global legend – and a lucrative entertainment commodity.

But in real life, it is sad and sordid.

What’s  most scary is that the violence and rebelliousness that so many Texans seem to admire is becoming more acceptable across the country – across the world.

CNN aired a program by Fareed Zakaria on Sunday explaining the rise of ISIS, and he observed that young men and women in the western world are more susceptible to enlistment by the barbarous organization because they have grown up playing video games and watching movies that glorify death and destruction.

I think he has a valid point. It is much easier to accept violence and outrageous behavior in real life if you have been immunized by make-believe horrors.

I have long wondered why children in America are shielded from sex but exposed to unlimited violence and wanton destruction in movies, video games and TV shows.

And I hope you won’t think I’m a conspiracy-theory nut if I wonder out loud whether some sinister force is choreographing this total-immersion culture of savagery and defiance.

Click for more on the biker brawl.

Click for the Branch Davidian story.

Click for the ISIS story.

 

Living in a Bubble

obama-fdr-new-new-dealI stand in the garden, propping myself up with the cane Sandra bought me, looking up at the China-blue sky screened by the lacy leaves of centuries-old oak trees, contemplating the statue of the Virgin Mary that my mother wrapped in a “crocus bag” and placed in the back seat of my car shortly before she died, and I thank God for His many mercies.

For I am privileged indeed to live in this bubble of serenity, buffered by fate from a world of pain and fear.

Of course, at 81 years old, I am no stranger to pain. For the past couple of weeks, I have been through more than my fair share of it. But when I think of the suffering inflicted on so many people around the world, I consider myself lucky.

Lucky to be alive. Lucky to  be walking – even with a cane. Lucky to have my wits – most of them anyway – about me.

Lucky to have no bombs raining down on my home, no soldiers breaking down my door.

And lucky to live in America while Barack Obama is in the White House, defending my interests every way he can.

In a world of turmoil, oppression and barbarism, this President will leave a legacy of compassion and common sense. He has not been able to do all that he would have liked to do. The forces of exploitation and greed have hobbled him. But he has done a lot in spite of the formidable opposition he faces.

Like spoiled children, too many Americans seem unaware of his accomplishments. The have-nots want more; the haves want none of his “liberal” policies.

It’s no wonder the rest of the world views America with bemused  astonishment.

As one of our  Canadian neighbors wrote in a letter to the editor just before the midterm elections that put Republicans firmly in control of Congress:

Many of us Canadians are confused by the U.S. midterm elections. Consider, right now in America, corporate profits are at record highs, the country’s adding 200,000 jobs per month, unemployment is below 6%, U.S. gross national product growth is the best of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. The dollar is at its strongest levels in years, the stock market is near record highs, gasoline prices are falling, there’s no inflation, interest rates are the lowest in 30 years, U.S. oil imports are declining, U.S. oil production is rapidly increasing, the deficit is rapidly declining, and the wealthy are still making astonishing amounts of money.

America is leading the world once again and respected internationally — in sharp contrast to the Bush years. Obama brought soldiers home from Iraq and killed Osama bin Laden.

You may not agree with all of President Obama’s policies but you have to admit he saved America’s auto industry, pulled the economy out of its worst tailspin in decades and provided an environment in which Wall Street is thriving. Unemployment is at record lows and health insurance is accessible to millions of Americans who were previously unable to obtain it.

You may consider President Obama’s policies a misguided adventure in “Nanny-state socialism.”  As for me, I am heartened by his continuing efforts to raise the minimum wage, curb gun violence, provide equal rights for women and minorities, and ensure humane treatment of undocumented immigrants.

I  have to admit that I am troubled by the drone strikes. But you may think he is too conciliatory with the forces that would do America harm. You may agree with those Republican presidential candidates who want Islamic extremists “bombed back to the seventh century.”

You and I may not always agree. (The results of the midterm elections make it clear that the majority of America’s voters don’t share my views.)

And, as an American, you are entitled to your opinion, and entitled to express that opinion verbally and in the voting booth.

But I beg you to bear in mind that we live in a bubble and bubbles are fragile. Our ballots should be labeled “Handle With Care.”

 

A Callous Congress

Amtrak

 

I wonder whether the voters who put rhose callous politicians in control of Congress feel shame and guilt in the aftermath of Tuesday’s horrendous Amtrak tragedy. I believe they should.

For, surely, those voters are indirectly guilty of causing the eight deaths (so far) and dozens of injuries resulting from the crash. As guilty as if they had mindlessly let that train speed off the tracks.

A vote is a precious privilege. It should be exercised responsibly. By electing politicians who disregard the dangers of an unsafe infrastructure, they have put unknown numbers of their fellow-citizens at risk.

In my view, it is futile to argue that they were not aware of the danger when they filled out their ballots. As responsible citizens they should know what the candidates on their ballots stand for.

Polls show that a majority of Americans favor funding the repair of America’s crumbling roads and bridges and the maintenance and construction of mass transit facilities – the kind of maintenance that would have prevented Tuesday’s grisly tragedy.

Yet a majority of America’s voters put a political party in power that opposes responsible funding of the nation’s infrastructure.

It is no secret that the Republicans who now control Congress  couldn’t care less about hungry children, the disabled, the aged – or any of their fellow-Americans who must suffer the consequences of their callous policies.  And, surely, it is no secret that these Republicans have repeatedly blocked the kind of funding that would have averted Tuesday’s horror.

Their objective is to slash the national budget and reduce taxes for the wealthy – regardless of the cost in human suffering.

As Senator Charles E. Schumer said in his rebuttal of Speaker John Boehner’s attempt to dodge the blame for the Amtrak crash:

Experts have made clear that Positive Train Control could have prevented the tragedy in Philadelphia.

(Positive Train Control is a system that monitors the speed of trains while they are in transit and can intervene automatically to brake the train if necessary. It was not operational where the crash occurred.)

Schumer added:

It is simply a fact that insufficient funding for Amtrak has delayed the installation of PTC, and to deny a connection between the accident and underfunding Amtrak is to deny reality.

Schumer is right, of course. It is “simply a fact” that every passenger railroad in America doesn’t have Positive Train Control because Congress will not approve the necessary funding. Here’s how the New York Times describes the political process:

In 2008, Congress ordered the installation of what are known as positive train control systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down. But because lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband…. But (officials said) the railroad struggled for four years to buy the rights to airwaves in the Northeast Corridor that would have allowed them to turn the system on.

It is also “simply a fact” that Denocrats were in control when Congress mandated the safety system. And it is “simply a fact” that a majority of America’s voters put Boehner’s party in control of Congress in subsequent elections – either not knowing or not caring about the likely consequences of doing so.

Click for more on the Amtrak crash.

Click for Amtrak’s explanation.

Click for Schumer on infrastructure funding.

 

Raising a Red Flag

michelle obama

 

First Lady Michelle Obama has set social media buzzing and drawn fire from the Glenn Beck faction for telling students at Tuskagee University about the racist insults she has endured during her time in the White House.

But she simply told the truth.

In her commencement address, the First Lady said that while Americans have made obvious progress in race relations, there’s more work to be done. She noted that she has had to deal with personal attacks during her time in the White House. One sketch showed her with a “huge afro and machine gun,”  she said. And she was described as “Obama’s Baby Mama” and one of his “cronies of color.”

She warned graduates that:

The road ahead is not going to be easy.  It never is, especially for folks like you and me.  Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away … And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry.  It can feel isolating.  It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter … And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible.  And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country.

Was it “polite” to mention these things? Some people might not think so. They might think it more polite to avoid “making a scene.”

But when racism is as ugly as it is in America today,  it’s time to “make a scene.” When so many young, black men are getting killed because of racism, politeness is not an option.

Tribalism is as old as mankind. But civilized people rise above such primitive impulses and learn to accept each other as human beings despite differences in skin pigmentation and ethnic origin.

The recent surge in racist incidents is evidence that civilization is under siege in Western society. While information and technology have exploded, education in its real sense has dwindled. As the world gets smarter in math and science, it seems to get dumber in the humanities.

I’m sure you’ve noticed how vulgarity is being embraced in popular culture, from marketing and entertainment to politics and even religion.

Meanwhile, economic injustice has bred an angry populism, which in itself is long overdue, but which has become contaminated in some instances with a kind of barbarism.

And the election of America’s first black President has created a backlash among some uneducated white Americans – an ugliness that is tolerated and encouraged by political opportunists.

In such a society – in such a world – it’s entirely appropriate for the First Lady to raise a red flag.

Click for more on the speech.

Click for the right-wing response.

 

Scott’s Forked Tongue

scott

I didn’t vote for Rick Scott. I don’t see how anyone could. But the majority of Florida’s voters don’t see things my way. They re-elected the man as our governor.

Now, they’re getting what they deserve. Lousy government.

Even Republican allies are at odds with this sorry excuse for a governor. The Legislature, which has large GOP majorities in both houses, can’t pass a budget.

A major reason is a disagreement over Medicaid expansion, which Scott has both supported and opposed. The Senate, backed by hospitals and business groups, wants to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, but the House is blocking it.

Scott is among the loudest naysayers. He is even suing the Obama Administration to stop the Medicaid expansion program.

He was once an ardent supporter. Two years ago, he declared he could no longer “in good conscience” oppose the expansion, which would provide health care coverage to nearly a million Floridians.

Back then, he claimed, he was experiencing a change of heart because of his mother’s death. But, as he now admits, he was really just trying to sweet talk the Obama Administration into letting Florida privatize Medicaid. The ruse worked. Private companies now manage Medicaid benefits for more than three million Floridians.

Scott seems to have forgotten his mother’s death, and obviously couldn’t care less for the benefits Obamacare could provide for Floridians.

The state now pays 40 percent of Medicaid costs and the federal government pays the rest. With the proposed expansion, the federal government would foot the entire bill at first, and 90 percent later on.

And a billion-dollar federal grant that defrays hospital care for indigent patients in the state expires June 30 unless the Legislature can reach a deal with the feds on Medicaid.

Scott tried to persuade the folks in Washington to keep paying for indigent patients even without the deal on Medicaid. But you know what they say about “once bitten, twice shy.” The feds weren’t about to get taken again.

Legislators must pass a budget by June 30 to avoid a government shutdown. And if they don’t accept Medicaid expansion, how are they going to compensate for that missing billion dollars? Probably by leaving homeowners like me with higher municipal taxes or reduced services – or both.

I don’t think anyone believed Scott could be trusted. A health care company he operated had to pay a fine of more than $1.5 billion dollars for cheating Medicare. Remember?

But I bet the folks who voted for him didn’t think they were going to be caught in the political crossfire between this double-dealing sweet talker and the feds.

Click for the AP story.

 

Who Listens to Ted Cruz?

Ted-Cruz-books

As the list of presidential hopefuls grows longer and longer, the media must decide who is worth listening to among the myriad voices clamoring for attention.

I heard on Rachel Maddow’s show the other night that there are more than 300 candidates already, and I bet there will be more.

Obviously, it’s impossible for the media to give all of them a soap box.

Among the Republicans, the pundits have identified about 30 “credible” candidates. And on the first page of the leader board is Ted Cruz.

So the media must be convinced that Cruz has a constituency. And he did get elected to the US Senate. But I can’t think of many voters outside of Texas who would pick him as their President.

Cruz says and does the craziest things. I suppose he thinks he is pandering to the extreme Republican base. But why would folks who revel in racism and bigotry vote for a Canadian-born candidate whose father comes from Cuba?

It seems bizarre that a Hispanic who was born in Alberta would run on a racist, xenophobic platform.

I don’t think he can count on most Hispanics voting for him, either. The name Cruz may sound undeniably Spanish, but, generally, Cuban-Americans have little in common with other Hispanics in this country. They’re a separate political entity – and they have their own candidate, Senator Marco Rubio.

Anyway, I don’t think many of the Cuban-Americans I met in Miami would vote for a candidate whose father fought for Castro.

So why does Cruz get so much attention from the media?

I suppose crazy talk and absurd posturing attract readers and viewers. But it wears thin after a while.

I just change the channel now when Cruz shows up on my TV.

Click for more on 2016 candidates.

 

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Fear and guilt are two of the most powerful ways to control people. And the far right uses both with abandon. I don’t have to tell you how “conservative” religious propagandists exploit the guilt of sex and the fear of Eternity. You’ve probably experienced that kind of thing at some stage in your life.

But you might not be aware of the constant barrage of sonspiracy theories that spew out of the right-wing noise machine.

The way they paint it, the world is controlled by shadowy powers that are coming to get us. You might have heard of the Illuminati and the UN’s world government agenda, for example.

President Obama is the target of numerous conspiracy canards. We are told he is a secret Muslim, conspiring to help the  jihadists destroy Christendom, that he was born in Kenya and some person or persons unknown conspired to fake a Hawaiian birth certificate for him, that he is the secret love child of Malcom X… and on and on.

Now, he is supposed to be planning an imminent invasion of Texas.

Just ask Chuck Norris. Or Ted Cruz. They know.

They say they can see through the federal government’s latest ruse, a two-month training exercise this summer that will involve much of the Southwest and require special forces from four branches of the military to carry out covert operations in “hostile” regions of Texas, Utah and California.

Folks like Norris and Cruz claim this is no simple training exercise. No sir, it’s really a sneaky prelude to the military takeover of Texas.

Really.

What’s even more discouraging is that a lot of ordinary Texans are buying this baloney. The Internet is buzzing with alarm, and groups of Texans are huddling in anticipation of the imagined assault. Online and at group meetings, Texans are airing their fears.

They are convinced that the President plans to institute martial law in their state, possibly in collusion with Wal-Mart. Yes, Wal-Mart. Right-wing web sites  are speculating that the retail giant is closing two stores in Texas so they can be used as federal command centers.

No, I am not making this stuff up.

Even weirder, some Texans are wondering whether the exercise will bring foreign fighters from the Islamic State to Texas, and whether federal troops will confiscate their guns.

And Texas Governor Greg Abbott has ordered the State Guard to “monitor” federal troops during the exercise.

Bizarre? Of course.

But that’s the way it is in the fantasy world of right-wing politics.

(Photo shows a group of Texans gathering to air their concerns.)

Click for the latest on the Texas invasion.

 

Sorry, Bernie. It’s Hopeless

bernie

 

I admire Bernie Sanders. I agree with Bernie Sanders 100 percent of the time. But I know he doesn’t have a chance of defeating Hillary in the Democratic primary.

So why would I vote for Bernie, knowing I’m throwing a precious vote out the window?

Even if he performs a miracle and wins the primary, Bernie isn’t going to win the presidency.

Americans are not ready for Bernie.

He is too logical, too sensible. He doesn’t deal in myths and fables. And Americans love myths and fables.

They want to believe in horoscopes and the supernatural, rock stars and sports heroes. They don’t want the cold hard truth; it’s too cold, too hard.

They vastly prefer symbolic triumphs to material victories. They’ll refuse the bread and opt for the imaginary cake every time.

So the notion of “America’s first female president” totally trumps Bernie’s no-nonsense platform of economic and social justice.

It’s the kind of slogan America’s women – and those of us men who support their fight for equal rights – can rally around.

So sorry, Bernie. Onward and upward, Hillary!

Click for more on Bernie’s candidacy.

 

Corruption? No, “Democracy”

court

 

Jamaicans and Canadians might be surprised to learn that what they would call corruption is the way democracy is supposed to work in America.

You see, both Jamaica and Canada adhere to the straitlaced British tradition of government for the people – all of the people – without fear or favor.

Apparently that’s not the way it works in America. And, in the opinion of the country’s highest court, that’s not the way it’s meant to work.

According to Chief Justice John Roberts – backed up by Justice Anthony Kennedy – American politicians are supposed to do the bidding of their financial supporters. What some might contemptuously describe as “pay-for-play” is what both members of the US Supreme Court consider the natural order of things.

Don’t believe me? Check out this morning’s “Think Progress” report by Ian Millhiser (link below).

Millhiser refers to  a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar that states may “prohibit judges and judicial candidates from personally soliciting funds for their campaigns.”  And he quotes Chief Justice Roberts as justifying the ruling this way:

States may regulate judicial elections differently than they regulate political elections, because the role of judges differs from the role of politicians. Politicians are expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of their supporters. Indeed, such “responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.” The same is not true of judges. In deciding cases, a judge is not to follow the preferences of his supporters, or provide any special consideration to his campaign donors. A judge instead must “observe the utmost fairness,” striving to be “perfectly and completely independent, with nothing to influence or control him but God and his conscience.”

Millhiser points out, with unassailable logic, that “the implication of the passage quoted above is that members of Congress, state lawmakers, governors and presidents should provide such consideration to their supporters and to their donors.”

He adds that the chief justice’s view is shared by other members of the court (photos above).  Indeed, he writes, “it drove much of the Court’s widely maligned campaign finance decision in Citizens United v. FEC.”  And he quotes Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion that “favoritism and influence” are unavoidable in a representative democracy, and could even be seen as a positive good. Here’s how Kennedy explains the Citizens United ruling:

It is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors… Democracy is premised on responsiveness.

Cynical? Horrifying? Disheartening?

All of the above, of course. How are we to muster up the energy to vote in a land where the highest court holds such views?

Click for the Think Progress article.

Click for more on the justices.

 

Behind the Riots

baltimore

 

It’s easy to point fingers and even assign blame in the sad Baltimore riots. But, obviousy, that’s not very helpful. It’s a complicated business, and I am thankful it’s not up to me to find a solution. But I can make an easy prediction: this isn’t the last such eruption in America.

There are layers upon layers of underlying causes for such tragic incidents. It seems some in the media see the nation’s law enforcement agencies as a refuge for sadistic racists who enjoy murdering young black men. I find that hard to believe. My brother Peter’s grandson, Anthony, is a deputy in Florida. Peter’s son’s brother-in-law has been a deputy for many years.Peter’s granddaughter’s husband is a deputy…

I am sure none of these men would intentionally harm anyone – except in the direst of circumstances.

Being a cop is hard. I wouldn’t want to be one.

Still, that does not excuse the slaughter of young black men across America. Somebody is killing them. And the somebody is often a law enforcement officer.

I suspect there’s a perception among law enforcement officers that young black males are dangerous. And I suspect the perception is based to a large extent on experience.

Yes, young black males can, indeed, be dangerous. If I were a young black male, I bet I would be dangerous. Wouldn’t you?

Young black males belong to an unjustly oppressed minority in America. There can be no argument about that. The reasons are numerous and complex, but the results are all-too-obvious.

I have lived in America for more than three decades, and I have seen little or no improvement in that intolerable situation.

Yes, a few lucky individuals are able to escape the ghetto, get into college, become professional athletes or lawyers or doctors or politicians – or even President.

But for the vast majority of young black mles, opportunity is simply out of reach.

And with the rapidly widening income gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country, the situation is likely to get worse, not better.

As I said, I am glad it’s not up to me to fix this tragic situation. And the consequences are likely to get a lot more violent as solutions continue to elude those charged with fixing it.

Fasten your seatbelts, America. It looks as if we’re in for a wild ride.

Click for more on the riots.

Click for more on the likely causes.